Clayhanger, by Arnold Bennett

Chapter Sixteen.

The Letter.

Then there was roast goose for dinner, and Clara amused herself by making silly facetious faces, furtively, dangerously, under her father’s very eyes. The children feared goose for their father, whose digestion was usually unequal to this particular bird. Like many fathers of families in the Five Towns, he had the habit of going forth on Saturday mornings to the butcher’s or the poulterer’s and buying Sunday’s dinner. He was a fairly good judge of a joint, but Maggie considered herself to be his superior in this respect. However, Darius was not prepared to learn from Maggie, and his purchases had to be accepted without criticism. At a given meal Darius would never admit that anything chosen and bought by him was not perfect; but a week afterwards, if the fact was so, he would of his own accord recall imperfections in that which he had asserted to be perfect; and he would do this without any shame, without any apparent sense of inconsistency or weakness. Edwin noticed a similar trait in other grown-up persons, and it astonished him. It astonished him especially in his father, who, despite the faults and vulgarities which his fastidious son could find in him, always impressed Edwin as a strong man, a man with the heroic quality of not caring too much what other people thought.

When Edwin saw his father take a second plateful of goose, with the deadly stuffing thereof — Darius simply could not resist it, like most dyspeptics he was somewhat greedy — he foresaw an indisposed and perilous father for the morrow. Which prevision was supported by Clara’s pantomimic antics, and even by Maggie’s grave and restrained sigh. Still, he had sworn to write and send the letter, and he should do so. A career, a lifetime, was not to be at the mercy of a bilious attack, surely! Such a notion offended logic and proportion, and he scorned it away.

Two.

The meal proceeded in silence. Darius, as in duty bound, mentioned the sermon, but neither Clara nor Edwin would have anything to do with the sermon, and Maggie had not been to chapel. Clara and Edwin felt themselves free of piety till six o’clock at least, and they doggedly would not respond. And Darius from prudence did not insist, for he had arrived at chapel unthinkably late — during the second chant — and Clara was capable of audacious remarks upon occasions. The silence grew stolid.

And Edwin wondered what the dinner-table of the Orgreaves was like. And he could smell fresh mortar. And he dreamed of a romantic life — he knew not what kind of life, but something different fundamentally from his own. He suddenly understood, understood with sympathy, the impulse which had made boys run away to sea. He could feel the open sea; he could feel the breath of freedom on his cheek.

He said to himself —

“Why shouldn’t I break this ghastly silence by telling father out loud here that he mustn’t forget what I told him that night in the attic? I’m going to be an architect. I’m not going to be any blooming printer. I’m going to be an architect. Why haven’t I mentioned it before? Why haven’t I talked about it all the time? Because I am an ass! Because there is no word for what I am! Damn it! I suppose I’m the person to choose what I’m going to be! I suppose it’s my business more than his. Besides, he can’t possibly refuse me. If I say flatly that I won’t be a printer — he’s done. This idea of writing a letter is just like me! Coward! Coward! What’s my tongue for? Can’t I talk? Isn’t he bound to listen? All I have to do is to open my mouth. He’s sitting there. I’m sitting here. He can’t eat me. I’m in my rights. Now suppose I start on it as soon as Mrs Nixon has brought the pudding and pie in?”

And he waited anxiously to see whether he indeed would be able to make a start after the departure of Mrs Nixon.

Three.

Hopeless! He could not bring himself to do it. It was strange! It was disgusting! . . . No, he would be compelled to write the letter. Besides, the letter would be more effective. His father could not interrupt a letter by some loud illogical remark. Thus he salved his self-conceit. He also sought relief in reflecting savagely upon the speeches that had been made against him in the debate. He went through them all in his mind. There was the slimy idiot from Baines’s (it was in such terms that his thoughts ran) who gloried in never having read a word of Colenso, and called the assembled company to witness that nothing should ever induce him to read such a godless author, going about in the mask of a so-called Bishop. But had any of them read Colenso, except possibly Llewellyn Roberts, who in his Welsh way would pretend ignorance and then come out with a quotation and refer you to the exact page? Edwin himself had read very little of Colenso — and that little only because a customer had ordered the second part of the “Pentateuch” and he had stolen it for a night. Colenso was not in the Free Library . . . What a world! What a debate! Still, he could not help dwelling with pleasure on Mr Roberts’s insistence on the brilliant quality of his brains. Astute as Mr Roberts was, the man was clearly in awe of Edwin’s brains! Why? To be honest, Edwin had never been deeply struck by his own brain power. And yet there must be something in it!

“Of course,” he reflected sardonically, “father doesn’t show the faintest interest in the debate. Yet he knew all about it, and that I had to open it.” But he was glad that his father showed no interest in the debate. Clara had mentioned it in the presence of Maggie, with her usual ironic intent, and Edwin had quickly shut her up.

Four.

In the afternoon, the sitting-room being made uninhabitable by his father’s goose-ridden dozes, he went out for a walk; the weather was cold and fine. When he returned his father also had gone out; the two girls were lolling in the sitting-room. An immense fire, built up by Darius, was just ripe for the beginning of decay, and the room very warm. Clara was at the window, Maggie in Darius’s chair reading a novel of Charlotte M Yonge’s. On the table, open, was a bound volume of “The Family Treasury of Sunday Reading,” in which Clara had been perusing “The Chronicles of the Schonberg–Cotta Family” with feverish interest. Edwin had laughed at her ingenuous absorption in the adventures of the Schonberg–Cotta family, but the fact was that he had found them rather interesting, in spite of himself, while pretending the contrary. There was an atmosphere of high obstinate effort and heroical foreignness about the story which stimulated something secret in him that seldom responded to the provocation of a book; more easily would this secret something respond to a calm evening or a distant prospect, or the silence of early morning when by chance he looked out of his window.

The volume of “The Family Treasury,” though five years old, was a recent acquisition. It had come into the house through the total disappearance of a customer who had left the loose numbers to be bound in 1869. Edwin dropped sideways on to a chair at the table, spread out his feet to the right, pitched his left elbow a long distance to the left, and, his head resting on his left hand, turned over the pages with his right hand idly. His eye caught titles such as: “The Door was Shut,” “My Mother’s Voice,” “The Heather Mother,” “The Only Treasure,” “Religion and Business,” “Hope to the End,” “The Child of our Sunday School,” “Satan’s Devices,” and “Studies of Christian Life and Character, Hannah More.” Then he saw an article about some architecture in Rome, and he read: “In the Sistine picture there is the struggle of a great mind to reduce within the possibilities of art a subject that transcends it. That mind would have shown itself to be greater, truer, at least, in its judgement of the capabilities of art, and more reverent to have let it alone.” The seriousness of the whole magazine intimidated him into accepting this pronouncement for a moment, though his brief studies in various encyclopaedias had led him to believe that the Sistine Chapel (shown in an illustration in Cazenove) was high beyond any human criticism. His elbow slid on the surface of the table, and in recovering himself he sent “The Family Treasury” on the floor, wrong side up, with a great noise. Maggie did not move. Clara turned and protested sharply against this sacrilege, and Edwin, out of mere caprice, informed her that her precious magazine was the most stinking silly ‘pi’ [pious] thing that ever was. With haughty and shocked gestures she gathered up the volume and took it out of the room.

“I say, Mag,” Edwin muttered, still leaning his head on his hand, and staring blankly at the wall.

The fire dropped a little in the grate.

“What is it?” asked Maggie, without stirring or looking up.

“Has father said anything to you about me wanting to be an architect?” He spoke with an affectation of dreaminess.

“About you wanting to be an architect?” repeated Maggie in surprise.

“Yes,” said Edwin. He knew perfectly well that his father would never have spoken to Maggie on such a subject. But he wanted to open a conversation.

“No fear!” said Maggie. And added in her kindest, most encouraging, elder-sisterly tone: “Why?”

“Oh!” He hesitated, drawling, and then he told her a great deal of what was in his mind. And she carefully put the wool-marker in her book and shut it, and listened to him. And the fire dropped and dropped, comfortably. She did not understand him; obviously she thought his desire to be an architect exceedingly odd; but she sympathised. Her attitude was soothing and fortifying. After all (he reflected) Maggie’s all right — there’s some sense in Maggie. He could ‘get on’ with Maggie. For a few moments he was happy and hopeful.

“I thought I’d write him a letter,” he said. “You know how he is to talk to.”

There was a pause.

“What d’ye think?” he questioned.

“I should,” said Maggie.

“Then I shall!” he exclaimed. “How d’ye think he’ll take it?”

“Well,” said Maggie, “I don’t see how he can do aught but take it all right . . . Depends how you put it, of course.”

“Oh, you leave that to me!” said Edwin, with eager confidence. “I shall put it all right. You trust me for that!”

Five.

Clara danced into the room, flowing over with infantile joy. She had been listening to part of the conversation behind the door.

“So he wants to be an architect! Arch-i-tect! Arch-i-tect!” She half-sang the word in a frenzy of ridicule. She really did dance, and waved her arms. Her eyes glittered, as if in rapture. These singular manifestations of her temperament were caused solely by the strangeness of the idea of Edwin wanting to be an architect. The strange sight of him with his hair cut short or in a new neck-tie affected her in a similar manner.

“Clara, go and put your pinafore on this instant!” said Maggie. “You know you oughtn’t to leave it off.”

“You needn’t be so hoity-toity, miss,” Clara retorted. But she moved to obey. When she reached the door she turned again and gleefully taunted Edwin. “And it’s all because he went for a walk yesterday with Mr Orgreave! I know! I know! You needn’t think I didn’t see you, because I did! Arch-i-tect! Arch-i-tect!”

She vanished, on all her springs, spitefully graceful.

“You might almost think that infernal kid was right bang off her head,” Edwin muttered crossly. (Still, it was extraordinary how that infernal kid hit on the truth.)

Maggie began to mend the fire.

“Oh, well!” murmured Maggie, conveying to Edwin that no importance must be attached to the chit’s chittishness.

He went up to the next flight of stairs to his attic. Dust on the table of his work-attic! Shameful dust! He had not used that attic since Christmas, on the miserable plea that winter was cold and there was no fireplace! He blamed himself for his effeminacy. Where had flown his seriousness, his elaborate plans, his high purposes? A touch of winter had frightened them away. Yes, he blamed himself mercilessly. True it was — as that infernal kid had chanted — a casual half-hour with Mr Orgreave was alone responsible for his awakening — at any rate, for his awakening at this particular moment. Still, he was awake — that was the great fact. He was tremendously awake. He had not been asleep; he had only been half-asleep. His intention of becoming an architect had never left him. But, through weakness before his father, through a cowardly desire to avoid disturbance and postpone a crisis, he had let the weeks slide by. Now he was in a groove, in a canyon. He had to get out, and the sooner the better.

A piece of paper, soiled, was pinned on his drawing-board; one or two sketches lay about. He turned the drawing-board over, so that he might use it for a desk on which to write the letter. But he had no habit of writing letters. In the attic was to be found neither ink, pen, paper, nor envelope. He remembered a broken quire of sermon paper in his bedroom; he had used a few sheets of it for notes on Bishop Colenso. These notes had been written in the privacy and warmth of bed, in pencil. But the letter must be done in ink; the letter was too important for pencil; assuredly his father would take exception to pencil. He descended to his sister’s room and borrowed Maggie’s ink and a pen, and took an envelope, tripping like a thief. Then he sat down to the composition of the letter; but he was obliged to stop almost immediately in order to light the lamp.

Six.

This is what he wrote:

“Dear Father — I dare say you will think it queer me writing you a letter like this, but it is the best thing I can do, and I hope you will excuse me. I dare say you will remember I told you that night when you came home late from Manchester here in the attic that I wanted to be an architect. You replied that what I wanted was business experience. If you say that I have not had enough business experience yet, I agree to that, but I want it to be understood that later on, when it is the proper time, I am to be an architect. You know I am very fond of architecture, and I feel that I must be an architect. I feel I shall not be happy in the printing business because I want to be an architect. I am now nearly seventeen. Perhaps it is too soon yet for me to be apprenticed to an architect, and so I can go on learning business habits. But I just want it to be understood. I am quite sure you wish me to be happy in life, and I shan’t be happy if I am always regretting that I have not gone in for being an architect. I know I shall like architecture. — Your affectionate son, Edwin Clayhanger.”

Then, as an afterthought, he put the date and his address at the top. He meditated a postscript asking for a reply, but decided that this was unnecessary. As he was addressing the envelope Mrs Nixon called out to him from below to come to tea. He was surprised to find that he had spent over an hour on the letter. He shivered and sneezed.

Seven.

During tea he felt himself absurdly self-conscious, but nobody seemed to notice his condition. The whole family went to chapel. The letter lay in his pocket, and he might easily have slipped away to the post-office with it, but he had had no opportunity to possess himself of a stamp. There was no need to send the letter through the post. He might get up early and put it among the morning’s letters. He had decided, however, that it must arrive formally by the postman, and he would not alter his decision. Hence, after chapel, he took a match, and, creeping into the shop, procured a crimson stamp from his father’s desk. Then he went forth, by the back way, alone into the streets. The adventure was not so hazardous as it seemed and as it felt. Darius was incurious by nature, though he had brief fevers of curiosity. Thus the life of the children was a demoralising mixture of rigid discipline and freedom. They were permitted nothing, but, as the years passed, they might take nearly anything. There was small chance of Darius discovering his son’s excursion.

In crossing the road from chapel Edwin had opined to his father that the frost was breaking. He was now sure of it. The mud, no longer brittle, yielded to pressure, and there was a trace of dampness in the interstices of the pavement bricks. A thin raw mist was visible in huge spheres round the street lamps. The sky was dark. The few people whom he encountered seemed to be out upon mysterious errands, seemed to emerge strangely from one gloom and strangely to vanish into another. In the blind, black facades of the streets the public-houses blazed invitingly with gas; they alone were alive in the weekly death of the town; and they gleamed everywhere, at every corner; the town appeared to consist chiefly of public-houses. He dropped the letter into the box in the market-place; he heard it fall. His heart beat. The deed was now irrevocable. He wondered what Monday held for him. The quiescent melancholy of the town invaded his spirit, and mingled with his own remorseful sorrow for the unstrenuous past, and his apprehensive solicitude about the future. It was not unpleasant, this brooding sadness, half-despondency and half-hope. A man and a woman, arm-inarm, went by him as he stood unconscious of his conspicuousness under the gas-lamp that lit the post-office. They laughed the smothered laugh of intimacy to see a tall boy standing alone there, with no overcoat, gazing at naught. Edwin turned to go home. It occurred to him that nearly all the people he met were couples, arm-inarm. And he suddenly thought of Florence, the clog-dancer. He had scarcely thought of her for months. The complexity of the interests of life, and the interweaving of its moods, fatigued his mind into an agreeably grave vacuity.

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Last updated Wednesday, March 12, 2014 at 13:31